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Tuesday, March 13, 2001, updated at 11:53(GMT+8)

China Set to Become Major World Player in Gene Technology

Gene technology and research has drawn much attention from China's lawmakers attending the ongoing session of the National People's Congress, the national legislature.

Shortly after deputies from Shanghai to the NPC tabled a draft bill aimed at protecting gene resources, deputies representing east China's Zhejiang province called on the legislature to formulate a law regulating research on gene, minimizing the negative impact of the gene technology, and protecting gene-related privacy and patents.

According to the Shanghai bill, gene resources in China should be declared state natural resources by law, and unauthorized collection of gene resources by any foreign institutions or individuals should be forbidden.

"No institutions or individuals in China are allowed to supply gene resources to overseas recipients without permission", says the bill submitted to the NPC session for deliberation and approval.

Life science and biology is widely regarded as the most important science and technology in this century.

Analysts say the moves have shown the desire by China to seize the opportunity provided by life science and biology to be one of the major players in the world in gene technology development in the 21st century.

Scientists say genetic engineering, the core of the modern bio- tech revolution, offers new hope and ways to solve a number of key issues facing mankind, including health, food, the environment and energy.

It has become the fastest growing technology in the past three decades and has drawn close attention from scientists, governments and many enterprises around the world.

Zhang Zhongli, an NPC deputy from Shanghai, said China hopes to achieve major breakthroughs in biological technology that will provide solutions to major problems it faces over food supply, population and resources.

With its arable land accounting for seven percent of the world, China has to feed and clothe its growing population of 1.2 billion, or one fifth of the world's total, which exerts great pressure on its resources and environment.

Zhang said China's future economic growth needs stimulus from scientific and technological innovations, adding world scientific and technological revolution and economic globalization makes it possible for China to catch up with the advanced world in some fields.

"China has the potential to become a major world player in gene technology," said Zhang, a former president of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

He explained that China is rich in animal, plant and microbe resources and that it is rich, too, in human gene resources as it has 56 ethnic groups totaling 1.2 billion people.

Experts say China is quite strong technologically, citing the fact that China synthesized for the first time in the world artificial insulin 35 years ago.

China has been the world leader in hybrid rice research and application thanks to Yuan Longping, father of hybrid rice, who has made great contributions to solving the food problem facing developing countries.

Hong Guofan, director of the National Gene Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said bio-tech was included into the country's high-tech research and development plan, Program 863, as early as 1986.

To date, transgenetic, insect-resistant cotton has been commercialized in China while disease-resistant wheat, insect- resistant corns and other transgenetic crops China has developed are yet to be approved.

China has scored great progress in biological medicines as well since 18 genetically-engineered pharmaceutical products and vaccines have been approved for commercial production since 1989, and more than 30 have undergone clinical tests.

A number of functional genes have been discovered in China and gene therapy has been used in clinical research.

Qiang Boqing, chief bio-tech scientist working for Program 863, said China launched last year programs to sequence the genome of domestic pigs and super-hybrid rice in a bid to find better ways to produce fast-growing pigs and high-yielding and quality rice.

Domestic pigs and rice are the most important sources of animal protein and grain food for most of the 1.2 billion Chinese people.

China is the only developing country in the world to have participated in the ongoing international Human Genome Project (HGP) designed to decode "the book of life".

China now ranks fourth in the world in genome sequencing capability thanks to its involvement in the HGP, which has laid a solid foundation for future genome projects.

"China is now on par with the world advanced level in gene research," said Qiang.

Yang Huanming, director of the Human Genome Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Chinese representative in the HGP program, said he believes it is highly likely China will be a world leader in biology in this century.

"We have abundant biological resources, some are peculiar, and we have lots of young and creative biological research workers," Yang said in a recent interview with Xinhua.

Commercialization of gene technology has already been regarded as a new economic growth area by governments at various levels and the private sector in China.

In Beijing, a bio-tech industrial park is being built, and construction of Asia's largest biological engineering center is under way in south China's boomtown Shenzhen.

Beijing, Shanghai and Zhejiang are the country's leading biological research and development centers.

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Gene technology and research has drawn much attention from China's lawmakers attending the ongoing session of the National People's Congress, the national legislature.

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